The Giant FREE Stamp in Cleveland
Location: Cleveland, Ohio (Willard Park, E. 9th St. & Lakeside Ave.)
When to visit: Anytime during daylight hours
Time needed: 5-10 minutes
Website: www.oldenburgvanbruggen.com/largescaleprojects/freestamp.htm (unofficial)
You’ve probably seen Cleveland’s giant “FREE” stamp in pictures. Though some call the 29 ft. x 26 ft. x 49 ft. sculpture the world’s biggest rubber stamp, it’s actually made of aluminum and steel and painted with polyurethane enamel.
The stamp sits near City Hall, perhaps mocking government officials with its subtle political statement.
But the artwork, created in the early ’80s by husband and wife sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, has a much longer backstory that has nothing to with politics!
History and Meaning of the Cleveland Free Stamp
The giant free stamp was commissioned in 1982 by Standard Oil of Ohio, which intended to install it in front of its own building and across from the Civil War Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
Initially, the stamp would have stood upright, meaning that no one would see the word on the bottom.
The sculptors had to choose a short word, so they selected “FREE,” which had many connotations, including the concept of liberty and the freedom of slaves after the Civil War.
When BP purchased Sohio, the BP execs thought the word “FREE” was a sarcastic slam on their company and corporate culture, so they nixed the project, calling it “inappropriate.”
(A bunch of suits failing to understand an artist’s intentions… we’ve never heard that story before, have we?) The Cleveland free stamp was sent into storage.
Eventually, the company realized it made no sense to keep paying to store this thing, so new discussions opened about whether it could be relocated.
The sculptors agreed to place it in Willard Park and to rest it on its side, as if it was flung across town into the park.
On November 15, 1991, the stamp made its public premiere. The stamp rests near the Cleveland Fire Fighters Memorial. It definitely looks better resting on its side, since you can see the entire thing including the bottom.
They’ve become renowned for their sculptures, which are scattered around the country and the world.
Among their other works: giant bowling pins in the Netherlands, a giant saw in Tokyo, a 45-foot set of binoculars in Venice Beach, and a giant horseshoe in Marfa, Texas, which was later moved to New York City.
They have two other statues inside the Cleveland Museum of Art: Standing Mitt with Ball and Giant Toothpaste Tube.
It’s funny how some of these sculptures have endured as national treasures, while others are mostly forgotten. The Cleveland Free Stamp remains one of their most noteworthy creations.
Visiting the Giant Stamp in Willard Park
You can see the “world’s largest stamp” for free in Willard Park in downtown Cleveland.
Willard Park is actually more of a parklet between blocks of businesses and high-rise buildings. There’s not a ton to do in the park other than see the stamp.
The park is commonly used as a place for marches and protests by Cleveland residents.
Would you visit the giant stamp? What do you think about the world’s largest rubber stamp in Cleveland?